London’s burning: social breakdown or a criminal case?

A wave of riots and robberies has swept through London since the weekend, following the death of Mark Duggan from Tottenham, presumed by the police to be a member of a street gang linked with Jamaica crime. Conflicting reports about Duggan’s death are continually surfacing. The watchdog, Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said that it was awaiting “further forensic analysis” to gain a comprehensive account of the shots which led to his death, while The Guardian quoted a source as saying that initial tests suggested a bullet found lodged in a police radio after Mark Duggan’s death was police issue. The IPCC will publish details of ballistic tests later today.

The ballistics report on the shooting of Mark Duggan, which sparked the initial riot in Tottenham, are expected to be published by the IPCC today

In immediate reaction to the shooting, shops in Camden, Clapham Junction, Hackney, Croydon, Enfield, and Lewisham have been ransacked. Violence has spread rapidly through other areas of the capital, but also other cities, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool. Cars have been torched in the streets and crowds (composed mainly of young people) have been entrenched in standoffs against the police force. Violence, robbery and looting should not be tolerated, nor should any form of criminal behaviour. While the perpetrators of these crimes should be brought to justice, this outbreak of violence proves that questions need to be asked. Criminality is undoubtedly unlawful, but it is also necessary to recognise that it has root causes, which will need to be addressed.

Anarchy broke out in London as hooded youths set fire to cars, bins and buildings

The level of violence reached in these last few days is abnormal, and indicates the beginnings of social collapse. Ever since the coalition government announced a framework of cuts, the country has been prone to unrest, as witnessed by recent student protests and trade union marches. Taking previous strikes and demonstrations, along with the violence that has been occurring over the last few days, public discontent seems to be constantly growing. Local councils warned that the economic cuts would mainly affect communities that were already struggling with the impacts of the global recession. Increasing levels of poverty and high unemployment do not create a good mix. Many social commentators will consequently argue that the youths that have been rioting in the streets over the last few days have lost faith in the hope of a decent future and have turned to criminality, something they have become overly familiar with in their social environments. Haringey (which incorporates Tottenham), for example, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8% – which is double the national average – with one vacancy for every 54 people seeking employment in the borough.

Sheer criminality should not and cannot be condoned but neither should the problems linked to its rise. While the looters stole by pure greed and not in opposition to the Dungan shooting, the extent of the damages of the level of violence and destruction that has been reached clearly points out to societal problems that are much deeper that just a group of kids that wanted to take whatever they felt like having. The BBC reporter Leonid Luneyev believes that these events are the inevitable outcome of social problems:

 “As the deputy mayor of London said, just imagine a young man who has not got either new trainers or money to buy them. And suddenly a wonderful opportunity springs up to rob a shop and get himself a pair of new trainers. Groups were formed through Twitter and went from one shop to another by bicycle and sometimes by car. Police were chasing them and trying to drive them off and arrest them.”

While Luneyev rightly claims that these events are rare in London, Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, believes that they have deep historical roots:

 “This is an old British tradition. Students also protested very aggressively in London recently, even though they belong to a different social layer. They are not immigrants’ children with little education and money but quite respectable young people, still, they behaved just as harshly. Such riots are a reflection of people’s displeasure, social problems and the inability of the system to guarantee jobs for a whole generation of young people. In this way young people show that it is necessary to change the social and economic policy.”

Similar riots took place in London during the economic recession of the 1980s. Levels of unemployment are growing once again. Saying that, if poverty were the only reason for the protests, they should have taken place in the north, rather than the south-west of the United Kingdom.

While the social problems are not to be ignored, it does not answer for the ‘gratuitous violence’ that is occurring. In response to this, Acting Scotland Yard Commissioner Tim Godwin appealed directly to families:

“I do urge now that parents start contacting their children and asking where their children are.”

He continued:

 “There are far too many spectators who are getting in the way of the police operation to tackle criminal thuggery and burglary… I’m imploring that people within those communities actually start clearing the streets to enable my police officers to deal with the criminality that’s occurring in front of them.”

The Home Secretary, Theresa May said:

“I think this is about sheer criminality. That is what we have seen on the streets. The violence we’ve seen, the looting we’ve seen, the thuggery we’ve seen – this is sheer criminality, and let’s make no bones about it… That’s why I say that these people will be brought to justice, they will be made to face the consequences of their actions and I call on all members of local communities to work with the police constructively to help the police to bring these criminals to justice.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband also made comment:

 “I am shocked by the scenes we are seeing in parts of London… This violence and vandalism is disgraceful criminal behaviour… What we need to see is the strongest possible police response to restore calm and security to our streets and for communities to work together.”

For my part, social commentary aside, I agree wholeheartedly with Zeinobia, the Egyptian blogger and activist who took part in the protests that forced the ex-Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak from power. Commenting on the UK riots, he quite rightly made the following remark:

 “I am sorry but you do not loot to object the murder of a young man, you are using his murder.”


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Categories: Crime, Events, Multiculturalism, People, Politics, Law

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

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4 Comments on “London’s burning: social breakdown or a criminal case?”

  1. August 10, 2011 at 3:10 am #

    • August 10, 2011 at 10:34 am #

      I decided to do a mini-piece late yesterday mentioning this speech too. Truly worth spreading. Just went live 🙂

  2. August 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Fabulous stuff!!!


  1. London Riots: Rioters Steal From Injured Man | Intentious - August 10, 2011

    […] London’s Burning: Social Breakdown or a Criminal Case? | News […]

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